A friendly, recognisable face of a mature, respectable man enters your living room and talks directly at you. He’s on your television announcing, “some wallet friendly news from Discovery Insure”.
It’s John Robbie from Talk Radio 702. If you listen to the breakfast show, he’s the very same man who’s likely to be in your bedroom, your kitchen and also in your car as you drive to work.
He is forthright and committed: with his no-nonsense approach, you can rely on him to challenge and often expose politicians and captains of industry. To some, he is a people’s champion. And like thousands of others who listen to him on the wireless:
You trust him.
John Robbie’s moral compass influences thousands of listeners: and possibly their way of thinking.
So when he concludes his advert with an impassioned plea, “I tell you. It pays to be with Discovery Insure. Call them. I promise you, you’ll thank me for it”, you instinctively feel like buying into his propaganda.
The people at Discovery Insure are banking that you’ll have been manipulated so much by “honest” John’s sincerity that you’ll transfer your insurance policy: you can be like John, who “switched last year and saving over 500 rand a month”.
Any doubts? Unlikely, because the man you rely upon to give you an honest, true and unbiased lowdown of the day’s news has just looked you in the eye and said,
“I promise you, you’ll thank me for it”,
Let’s not beat about the bush, here. John Robbie has received a handsome payment to read a carefully crafted script, strategically honed by market men to exploit and manipulate you into buying their product.
Are you appalled? Do you feel used? You’re being played with and (given the language and gestures) almost bullied by a man whose convictions you once admired. You had faith.
I use the past tense, because surely that intimate bond and trust has been shattered?
Shall we give John one more chance? Ahh, but there he is again, on your radio and your tv, shamelessly promoting Apple’s i-Pad. He’s even using children to promote this latest product. “I can’t live without an i-Pad now”, he confides while wearing a fleece embossed with an Apple iStore logo. I wonder if it was given to him by his paymasters?
Hopefully his tablet device can keep a track of all the cash he’s raking in presenting these commercials.
As far as I’m concerned, Robbie’s integrity is in tatters. Any campaign he now endorses on 702, no matter how worthy; any interview he conducts; and every time he says, “That’s incredible”, I get a lingering, bilious feeling there might be an ulterior motive at play. I dare say, most of the time, he is being true to his listeners, but can we continue to rely on his incentive?
Cynics may say, “Fair play to the man, he’s not breaking any rules.” And sadly, they’d be right.
The system is at fault. I’d even go so far as to say South Africa’s Press Code of Conduct is ethically flawed.
Franz Kruger, who teaches journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand, and has written a book on ethics would agree.
He refers to such malpractice (my word), as the blindspot of SA journalism:
“While some South African news organisations are developing sensitivity to the issue, the industry codes are completely silent on the issue. Astonishingly, neither the Press Code of Conduct nor the Code of Conduct for Broadcasters make any mention of the need for journalists to remain independent from undue influence.”
Such vagrant abuse of responsibility by broadcasters is completely alien to me. Granted, I grew up in the UK with the likes of the BBC (affectionately, known as Auntie because of its puritanical image).
I tried the internet for a good hour to discover which South African broadcasters publish a code of ethics. I didn’t have much joy.
On the other hand, a large proportion of international media houses (such as the BBC) freely publish their editorial guidelines. I found this website immediately.
I wonder what John Robbie would make of these principles:
The BBC&39;s reputation, in the UK and around the world, is based on its editorial integrity and independence. Our audiences must be able to trust the BBC and be confident that our editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests.
We must be independent from outside interests and arrangements which could undermine our editorial integrity.
We must not endorse or appear to endorse any other organisation, its products, activities, services, views or opinions.
South Africa does have the BCCSA, but my one and only dealing with them left me aghast.
(Warning: this next paragraph contains a vulgar word)
A few years back, I had picked up my kids from school, and on the radio Jenny Crwys-Williams (yes, 702 again) asked her guest author to read a passage from her new book. The excerpt was about a prisoner on his release. He’d been convicted after butchering a woman. He’d stabbed her “in the neck, the chest, her stomach and, her cunt”.
Jenny’s response at the end of the reading, “Marvellous”! No apology, nor any reference to the violence and obscenity my children and all her listeners had endured in the middle of the afternoon.
Defending my complaint, Primedia argued that Jenny’s afternoon show is for adults. Really? Then why haven’t I heard a single indication or warning that the show is unsuitable for children?
But the BCCSA, the watchdog that presides over South Africa’s broadcast media and enforces a Code of Conduct agreed. They dismissed my complaint with a terse e-mail.
As their website explains: "watershed period" as referred to in this Code means the period between 21h00 and 05h00. Such restriction applies only to television services.
I support the notion of self-regulation in the media. It firmly puts the onus on broadcasters, newspapers and websites to prove they are responsible and act with taste, decency and sound moral judgment.
City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee has this week put her head on the block in defending her principles, which she insists her staff must also abide by. She doesn’t mince her words, “If you don’t like it, lump it. So, leave if you like, but that is my line in the sand.”
But sadly there are others whose integrity is not so laudable. Writing for the Daily Maverick, Lance Claasen (who is responsible for the daily content of “all the Talk shows on Kaya FM) chirps,
“The secret to radio is that it has commercialised the relationship with those who consume it. If a DJ or host endorses a product, it is bound to sell. We have seen this at Kaya FM. If we create events like SMME and personal finance workshops, our listeners respond. Listeners want to feel part of something bigger, more wholesome (sic) and that connects them to the world.
Advertisers will pay a premium to get direct leads. Media houses have to create different platforms for consumers and for advertisers to interact with them. Build the relationship then commercialise it.”
While the likes of Claasen and John Robbie get rich, it leaves the rest of us feeling rather cheap.